This book is mainly remarkable because, as far as I can tell, it was the very first depiction of the computer net as a "place," with insubstantial architecture and resident monsters. It prefigured Gibson by several years. Its hero runs the net, and dodges its defenses, in the same way Gibson's cowboys would be doing in a few years:
"Lines of light hurtled past him now. He changed direction moment to moment, the whip and twist of the screen hurting his eye muscles and making his stomach drop in spite of himself. This was only a philosophical abstract, wasn't it? The maze-Weblattice was only a convenient schematic . . .
"No, it was not. Virtual systems bent on his death pursued him across a landscape that was represented by light-pictures but was wholly real in its x-thousand cabinets of crystals and wires."
Grailer is a Spinner, or Webspinner. He is a master of the interstellar communication network, the Web. A native talent, he was adopted by the enigmatic Mr. Aristide and taught the mysteries of the Web, and the customs of the secret brotherhood of Spinners.
". . . the real and true definition of our craft . . . practicing
techniques that the Web was not designed to permit and that none but themselves realize are possible."
And Spinning is dangerous. The Web is guarded not just by the glowing Geisthounds, the computer constructs that can fry a Spinner to a crisp, but in the physical world as well, by the cold-blooded, hyperefficient police called CIRCE. They hunt down Spinners and kill them very thoroughly indeed, past any hope of revival.
"Fingers had pressed on her throat suddenly, a hand in an impact glove; and a voice from behind a black face bubble said "Combined Executive. We're CIRCE. You'll be all right." Four hands held her down, not roughly; four spread Philip against the wall. Two hands assembled a quiet gun and fired it into his body. Four times - their trademark. Once through the brain, instant death, then into the throat. Through the heart. Down, penetrating the diaphragm. Let the victim have the hardest of amber contracts; let them freeze him. Let him wait for a cure for those wounds."
As Grailer learns, there is more going on in the Web than even the Spinners know . . . betrayals, conspiracies and strange alliances. But he survives, and eventually learns enough to be a player instead of a pawn.
This is far from Ford's best work; too much happens, and it's
connected too loosely and revealed too patly. But it's interesting reading because it was ahead of its time - apparently prefiguring the cyberpunk movement without really affecting it - a sort of parallel-world version of the genre.
Web of Angels
John M. Ford
1980, 256 pgs., pb, $2.25.